Scripture Readings: 1 Corinthians 15:12-20

Luke 6:17-26

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

This year’s BBC Scotland Hogmanay show had a treat for those of a certain age, for it saw the return of the Reverend IM Jolly. Gregor Fisher played the character of a lugubrious Scottish minister bringing his New Year message to the nation.

For the Reverend IM Jolly was originally brought to life by Scottish comedy great Rikki Fulton. He’s still fondly remembered, despite having died back in 2004. You can still find many of sketches from his show, Scotch and Wry online, and they still make me laugh.

Rikki Fulton died back in 2004: his funeral was quite an event. In a nod to another of his comedy creations, his hearse was escorted to Clydebank Crematorium by Strathclyde Police motorcyclists. There was a lot of wit and hilarity from those who paid tribute to him at his funeral.

However, I took a certain professional satisfaction in the fact that the best joke of the day came from the minister, who was somebody I knew! The Reverend Alastair Symington was a family friend of Fulton: an urbane ex-RAF officer with a wicked sense of humour- not at all like the Reverend I M Jolly. He speculated that if Rikki were to have a tombstone, he’d perhaps want the epitaph to read (and this really only works in a Glasgow accent): ‘Here likes Rikki Fulton. Oh, so it is!’ You can imagine that that’s exactly what Rikki must have heard many a time from passers-by on Glasgow streets.

It’s nice to be able to celebrate the end of a life, to laugh even in the face of death. And, indeed, it’s not that rare to have a laugh or two at a funeral service. And even if we’re not quite ready to laugh at the time of the funeral, usually the memories bring laughter as time goes on. I’m often asked by families to try to ensure that the funeral of their loved one should be a celebration of their lives. For it’s good to celebrate life at the end of a life.

Yet there is much more to a Christian funeral than just happy memories. Because for we Christians, death is not the end, but another stage in our journey. We are people who understand that this life is just part of a longer journey.

That’s what St Paul is getting at in the fifteenth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians. Later on in the chapter, he writes, ‘We shall not all die’[1]. That is one of the most radical statements in the New Testament. To say that death is not the end is a radical statement, which, if we believe it, puts everything we ever thought our life in a new light.

Yet even among the first Christians, there were people who doubted. Paul heard that in Corinth there were doubters- which is why he writes, ‘…how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?’ And if there were doubters then, there have been doubters in every age, as there are doubters today.

For faith and doubt go together. I can’t prove to you that there is life after death. But I wouldn’t conduct Christian funerals if I didn’t think it was true. It is a matter of faith, of believing what we cannot see or fully know. So if you have your doubts about the resurrection of the dead- or about any other bit of Christian belief- well, know that you are not alone. We all have our doubts. Indeed, there have, it seems, been doubters in the church right from the very beginning. In Corinth there were those who doubted Paul’s message about the resurrection of the dead. Paul’s answer to them was straightforward. You cannot have the Gospel without the belief in the resurrection of the dead, he said. Take away the hope of resurrection, and there’s nothing much left of Christianity. As Paul writes:

If our hope in Christ is good for this life only and no more,then we deserve more pity than anyone else in all the world.

We are to be pitied, because trying to live a Christian life would be meaningless unless without the hope of resurrection. Christ would have died and come back from the dead for nothing, and all our striving to follow him in this life would pointless.

But the truth is that Christ has been raised to from death

continues Paul. And then he conceives of a powerful image, taken from agriculture. It’s a bit lost in the Good News translation, but the passage reads in the New Revised Standard Version:

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.

At harvest time, the firstfruits are the early fruits, the fruit that ripens first, and those are the ones that are collected by the farmer before the rest. Christ, says Paul, is ‘the first fruits of the harvest of the dead’. Jesus resurrection is just the first of many- he’s the first to be gathered home by God, the great harvester. And because Jesus has been raised from the dead- the firstfruits of the harvest of the dead- then the rest of us will be raised. Easter- the resurrection of Jesus- is the guarantee that one day, we too will be raised to life by God. That is the Christian hope.

In a time of such uncertainty as we are in today, we really need to hear about hope. Hope is a valuable commodity, but there isn’t really a lot of it about. In many ways we seem to live in a very confident society. We live in a rich country. Yet our young people say their lives lack meaning. Our older people worry about how they will be looked after in future. We are all worried about Brexit, Donald Trump, how wars and terrorism around the globe will affect us. We worry that climate change will make things much, much worse for future generations. Scratch the surface of our society, and you find lots of people living aimless lives, young people with no clue about what to do with their lives, middle aged people burning out with the strain, a society that has lost its sense of hope.

We need hope, a hope beyond hope, a hope for ourselves, and for the world. The Christian Gospel gives us hope by putting things into perspective. It helps us to see that there is a wider picture.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells people to be happy by pointing towards a future. Again, the Good News version loses something in translation, so here it is sounding a bit more familiar:

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled

Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

According to Jesus, the poor are blessed. Those who are hungry, those who now weep, the people we think are at the bottom of the heap- they are blessed by God. The Kingdom of God is theirs.

And in an age when it is common for people to be insulted and hated, just because of their skin colour, religion, nationality, or something else which marks them out as different, Jesus says:

Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame.

Jesus is speaking to his followers, who one day would find themselves outlawed because of their faith, but I think his message applies equally to anyone who is outlawed through no fault of their own, and to anyone who is insulted because of their race, nationality or creed. The poor and oppressed, the hungry, the mourners, the illegals and outlaws- Jesus calls them ‘blessed’. He offers them all hope.

But this is ridiculous, we say. In our world, the rich are the one who are blessed. The happy are ones are those with more than enough. The rich and the powerful are the ones who seem to have it all. How can someone who scrapes a living be ‘blessed’? How can someone driven to distraction by a crazy world be ‘blessed’? To call these people ‘blessed’ is almost an insult. This is not how ‘this life’ is. But you see, it is not just ‘for this life only’ that we have hope. There is a wider picture. ‘This life’ is only part of the picture. We know this because Jesus rose from the dead.

Jesus’ life, preaching and teaching challenged the way people usually look at the world- and that was dangerous. He looked at things in an upside down sort of way. The poor and sad and outcast he called ‘blessed’. And he also said, alas for the rich and the well-fed. Woe to the people making money out of other folk’s misery- the people smugglers, the pimps, the ones who make money by encouraging hatred and war, the ones who work people to death, those who laugh at the plight of the poor. To them, Jesus says ominously: ‘How terrible for you: you have had your easy life’. Their time is up.

And so the rich and powerful ganged up on Jesus, for his message was too dangerous for them to bear. They paid good money to have him betrayed (for these are the sort of people who believe money can buy anything, and there’s always some poor soul- a Judas- who will sell even someone he loves for money). And so they bought Jesus, gave him a show trial, and put him to death. And because they thought that there is only ‘this life’, they reckoned that was the end of it.

Well, it should have been. Death is the end. We Christians don’t deny that. We don’t deny that the sadness, even the tragedy of death. We don’t deny that the death of Jesus, a young man in the prime of his life, was a disaster. If we’d been his disciples, we’d have fled too- back to our fishing boats, trying to pick up the threads of the lives we’d had before the Jesus and his hopeless dreams had interrupted. And in the palaces of governor Pilate, and of High Priest Caiaphas, and in Pilate’s castle- well, there may have been a bit of unease about it all- but that’s politics, a dirty business, and at least they’d kept the peace. The End.

But in this case, death was not the end. Against all the laws of science- he came back. ‘Christ has been raised from death’, writes St Paul. Resurrected from the dead. Out of death, life. Out of tragedy, victory. Out of despair, hope. And the Pilates and the Caiaphases and the Herods begin to wonder, ‘Is there this life only- or is there more?’ Which is a worry for them, because that means that when Jesus said they’d their time of happiness- well, maybe he was speaking the truth.

And as for the poor- the ones Jesus had said he was bringing Good News to- and the hungry and the sad ones and the outlaws- they too begin to wonder. ‘Is there this life only- or is there more?’ Could what Jesus promised for us be coming true? Will we inherit the kingdom, will our hunger be satisfied, will we who now weep soon be laughing and dancing for joy? If there is more than just ‘this life’, then that is good news to the poor and the oppressed, and bad news for the rich and the oppressors.

If our hope in Christ is good for this life only and no more,then we deserve more pity than anyone else in all the world.

Without that promise of life beyond death, the Christian gospel is not worth very much. But with that promise, our life here and now is also changed. Because Christians believe that life can come from death, and that good will triumph over evil, we look at the world differently, we live differently, and everything goes upside down. The poor are blessed, for wealth and success are not everything after all.

Maybe there is only this life, and we cannot change how it is. But I know what I prefer to hope for. If it’s true that God can bring life out of death (and he seems to have done so with Jesus), then soon the poor will inherit the Kingdom, the hungry will be satisfied, those who week will laugh, and the persecuted and downtrodden will dance and sing. Because Christ has risen, new life is possible- in this life, and for eternity. Thanks be to God, for Christ is risen, and we can live as people who have hope.

Ascription of Praise

To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.

1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)

© 2018 Peter W Nimmo

Bible quotations from the Good News Bible, except where indicated

[1] 1 Corinthians 15.51